Pete Sampras stood still on center court at the Australian Open as if naked, his emotions exposed, his face awash with tears, his chest heaving.
“C’mon, honey, get in there,” his girlfriend, Delaina Mulcahy, said gently from the front row.
Across the net, Jim Courier shouted jokingly to his friend and rival, “Are you all right, Pete? We can do this tomorrow.” It was a gesture of love by Courier, who knew how much Sampras was hurting inside and wanted to help him stop crying.
Yet, Sampras couldn’t stop thinking about his coach, Tim Gullikson, who had left the hospital and flown home earlier in the day after a dizzy spell that may have been related to a heart condition and two recent strokes.
“Do it for your coach,” a fan had called to Sampras at the start of the fifth set of a four-hour match Tuesday night that was as much grand theater as it was great tennis between the defending champion, Sampras, and the 1992 and ’93 champion, Courier.
Sampras would come back from two sets down for the second straight match and win 6-7 (7-4), 6-7 (7-3), 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 to reach the semifinals. But that remark by the fan triggered Sampras’ fragile emotions and started him weeping into a towel on the changeover at 1-0 of the final set.
“He is so emotionally exhausted from this whole thing. He wants to do it for Tim,” Mulcahy told Mary Carillo of ESPN during the dramatic fifth set.
Sampras splashed ice water on his face and returned to court, though he looked as if he wanted to hide. Courier won the next game, in the process earning a code violation for cursing, and now it was Sampras’ turn to serve.
Somehow, he managed to get to 30-0 with his 19th ace at 118 mph, but as he stood behind the baseline to serve again he couldn’t move. The tears poured down his face while 15,000 spectators watched, and he stared blankly at his rackets, fingering the strings.
Maybe it was his girlfriend’s words, maybe it was Courier’s joke, but after a few moments Sampras pulled himself together enough to serve once more. Through those tears, he smacked his 20th ace and then a service winner to take a 2-1 lead, and it was clear at that moment that neither emotions nor weariness nor pain were going to stop him.
Courier, who had played so brilliantly to take the first two sets, would be the one to weaken first. He never had even a single break point against him in those two opening sets, had slugged with the confidence and control of his championship days, yet he couldn’t deny Sampras’ will or the signals his own body was giving him.
“I was standing there getting ready to serve, cramping every time ... quads, groin, hamstrings,” Courier said of the game he lost at 4-3 in the final set, the game that would cost him the match. “I was trying to get the ball in the air without falling down. That was not a lot of fun.”
At break point in that game, Courier drove a forehand into the net cord, the ball popping up and falling back on his side. A fraction of an inch and the match was virtually over. Sampras served it out at love with the help of his 23rd ace and a service winner at match point at 1:09 a.m.
As they met at the net and walked off to a long, loud ovation, Sampras wrapped his right around Courier’s shoulder, and Courier wrapped his left arm around Sampras’ waist.
“I know you’re dead because I’m ... dead,” Courier said to Sampras.
Sampras then left quickly, leaving Courier to sit by himself for a few minutes and stare at the court, thinking about this incredible match that got away. When he finally rose, the crowd sent him off with another ovation.
“I realized early, going into the second set, something special was happening out there,” Courier said. “We were both not missing very much, and all the points were really being fought for.”
This match had it all -- rallies that sometimes lasted for more than 20 shots, volleys that were inspired, chases after balls that seemed impossible to reach yet somehow were returned.
“It would certainly be one of the few, if not the best, I’ve played as far as the intensity and quality of play,” Courier said. “I don’t feel bad about this match at all. I know I played well. I just physically gave out. Y’know, the other guy was physically giving out, too, and 4-3 in the fifth, anything could have happened. We both could have collapsed any minute.”
Tournament director Paul McNamee preceded Sampras into the postmatch media conference to confirm that it was Gullikson’s illness that had upset Sampras. McNamee also asked that the media not question Sampras on the details.
Sampras choked up when reporters broke into applause as he came into the interview room and left in tears. He came back moments later to answer questions, saying he was “flat-out tired” and proud of his comeback.
“Win or lose, I thought it was one of the better matches I’ve ever taken part in,” Sampras said, still appearing to be distressed. “I just didn’t quit and tried to do everything I could to try to win. You know, we both showed a lot of heart out there.”
Gullikson was on his way to Chicago for medical tests and did not see the match.
“I had to leave Australia for health reasons,” Gullikson said Tuesday through an ATP spokesman. “I didn’t really have a choice. I have to get healthy. I can’t help him if I’m not healthy.”
Gullikson commented on the match when he telephoned the ATP office while changing planes in Los Angeles.
“Pete deserves a lot of credit for coming back against a great player like Jim,” Gullickson said. “I’m very proud of him.”
Now, after two straight five setters, Sampras faces the inexhaustible Michael Chang.
“Yes, then maybe Agassi,” Sampras said with a sigh. “But, you know, it’s already Wednesday and I play -- I don’t when I play -- Thursday? It’s going to be a lot of running. Hopefully, I can recover from this whole experience and play a good match.”
Conchita Martinez, playing with the same determination that brought her last year’s Wimbledon singles title, moved a step closer to another Grand Slam championship.
Martinez, the second seed, beat American Lindsay Davenport 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 to advance to the semifinals against Mary Pierce. Davenport double-faulted on match point and made 50 unforced errors.
“Every time I’ve played her it’s been a problem,” said Davenport. “It’s tough because I have to be the one to go for it. I know I can’t stay out there and rally with them.”